American Jews: From Holocaust to New Age Hasidism?

The best Jewish thinking is conscious of being rooted in a certain historical moment. When theology is simply disinterested commentary on a textual tradition, there is nothing to give it ballast with a reader. But when theology presents itself as commentary for an audience that (so the theologian says) needs this commentary now, then it can transform a community.

One of the most widely known bits of modern Jewish theology is Emil Fackenheim’s articulation of the “614th commandment” to refuse Hitler a posthumous victory by giving up on one’s Judaism or Jewishness. That commandment did not come simply from Fackenheim’s head. For him, it was the only way that the vibrancy of post-Holocaust Jewish life could possibly make sense. When affirming Jewish identity could lead to death, the imprudent celebration of Jewish culture could only be a response to a supernatural voice. But Fackenheim’s insistence that a sociological fact reflected a theological reality also helped to cement that sociological fact. Today, the Holocaust and the State of Israel are at the center of contemporary Jewish life.

Like Fackenheim, Shaul Magid begins his new book, American Post-Judaism, on a sociological note. Given the rate of intermarriage among Jewish Americans and the ways in which American culture no longer is content with prescripted roles for varying ethnic groups, Magid infers that American Jews now live in a postethnic culture. The ways in which Jews perform their particularism vary widely. In one way or another, all Jewish Americans today are Jews by choice, defining their identity as opposed to accepting others’ definitions of their identity in accordance with their ethnos.

Shouldn’t this make a theological difference? While I may be giving Magid’s book more of a theological spin than he might want, it seems to me that American Post-Judaism is profitably read not simply as a descriptive book of what Jews do now, but also as an argument to American Jews to explicitly take up the radical theology that implicitly extends throughout their postethnic lives, and to put that theology into action.

I find it helpful to present the book not as a summary of the progression of its chapters, but in terms of the steps of the book’s argument as a whole.

First, Magid argues that any description of the contemporary world, and especially contemporary America, does not and cannot mesh with a description of normative forms of Judaism or Jewishness. The increasing cosmopolitanism and globalism of our world means that Jewish thinking cannot rest secure in its dominant concepts. For example, monotheism, because it is elective monotheism, always distinguishes between sheep and goats, placing Jews apart from other ethnoi. How is that concept useful in the contemporary world?

Those who want to ground Jewish identity in the reality of today’s antisemitism abroad must deal with the disconnect between that antisemitism and the reality of Jews who are truly at home in America today. Even the contemporary memorialization of the Holocaust rests on a strange rhetorical simultaneity of the uniqueness of Jewish victimization alongside a universalism implicit in the commitment to human rights that flows out of Holocaust memory. Jewish ideas have lost their clarity.

Second, he shows that there are resources for harmonizing Jewish identity and worldly identity—for truly returning Jews as Jews to history—in American Jewish thought. Felix Adler, the founder of the Society for Ethical Culture (which, as Magid rightly points out, did not seek to displace religious observance), as well as the Reconstructionist Mordecai Kaplan, sought to do this almost a century ago. Magid is not nostalgic for these figures. Yet he does see them as exemplars of an “inventiveness” that Jewish theology needs, and that, in his view, America has nourished over the years as the seedbed of a variety of new religious movements. 

Third, he claims that the best current development of that American Jewish tradition lies in the theology of Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the ex-Chabad Hasid who has become the intellectual leader of the Jewish Renewal movement that melds Jewish tradition with New Age thinking. It is Schachter-Shalomi who, styling himself “a Jewish practitioner of generic religion,” has blurred the boundaries between the Jewish and the non-Jewish worlds through halakhic creativity in response to intermarried couples, through mobilizing the tensions inherent within kabbalistic concepts to develop a non-patriarchal and proto-pantheist Judaism in which God is not Lord, and through interpreting Christ as “being an incarnate of Torah.”

This is not to say that Jewish Renewal is perfect. Magid rightly refuses to endorse Schachter-Shalomi’s interpretation of the Holocaust as an event that could not have been prevented by a Torah that “offered nothing to the non-Jew”; such an interpretation is simply blind to the reality of liberal strands of Judaism, and seems to be perfectly designed to invite charges of obscenity.

Yet Magid is most compelling when writing about the “post-halakhism” of Jewish Renewal—a worldview that affirms the usefulness of Jewish halakhic practice both to local communities and to the world as a whole, yet denies that the practices of tradition were commanded by God. This worldview, for Magid, comes from a desire for “global liberation” and a conviction that the people of Israel will one day no longer be a primary category of Jewish belief. Such an approach is not simply an expression of his theological desires. Rather, even if Jewish Americans are not explicitly followers of Schachter-Shalomi, their postethnic lives entail a theology that is functionally equivalent to that of Jewish Renewal. Schachter-Shalomi thus becomes a tool to explain the reality of contemporary Jewish postethnicity, just as Fackenheim’s “614th commandment” explained the rise of Jewish particularism almost fifty years ago. 

Fourth, Magid claims that not only are contemporary Jewish Americans implicitly members of Jewish Renewal (in a broad sense that he uses as a “trope”), but that this is the theology that Jewish Americans need. The rightness of such a claim is not obvious. If traditional notions of Judaism and Jewishness are at odds with the contemporary world, one can either change Judaism, or one can change the world. The latter path is well on display in the frequent worries about the future of Jewish commitment and in the expansion of the Taglit-Birthright Israel program. Magid’s hypothesis, however, is that time is not on the side of the fretters: “The Holocaust and Zionism have arguably been the glue that has kept American Judaism intact since the Second World War. This will likely not be the case in the next few generations.”

Could this be true? It seems to fly in the face of everything we know about contemporary Jewish life, in which the radicalism of Schachter-Shalomi is explicitly on the margins (even if Magid is correct to say that it implicitly exists everywhere). Yet perhaps it is true. A student of mine was describing her flirtation with a frum lifestyle during her first year of college when a classmate, seeing her bare shoulders, asked why she had left that life: “I started dating a non-Jewish boy,” she said simply. 

If postethnicity is to be only a momentary blip in Jewish and American life, those who want to change the world and leave Judaism untouched will have to break into people’s hearts. Those hearts will be shattered in the process. It seems wiser, once we learn from Magid that Jewish theology and sociology need not be enemies, to run headlong into the future with a radically transformed past.

mkavka@fsu.edu'

Martin Kavka is the Philip and Muriel Berman Chair in Jewish Studies at Lehigh University.